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Brian Kelly may not have made any official decision on the move of Mike McGlinchey to left tackle. But if Harry Hiestand’s rebuilt front five looks the way the Irish staff wants, it’ll likely feature McGlinchey on the left side with Quenton Nelson and three new starters lined up next to each other.
With only one practice in the books, Kelly discussed what he thinks will be his starting five come September, and it appears that junior center Sam Mustipher is going to get first crack at the job. After serving as Nick Martin’s backup in 2015, Mustipher was all but penciled into the lineup, a potential building block as the search for the right side comes into focus.
“I think you’re going see at least with McGlinchey, Nelson and Mustipher, that’s going be a pretty consistent thing,” Kelly said Wednesday. “Then on the right side there’s really three guys that are competing for two positions, so we’re going to have some really good consistency there. So I think we’re going to come out of this with really a good rotation.”
Those three guys are senior Colin McGovern, senior Hunter Bivin and junior Alex Bars, with Bars still not all the way back from an ankle injury that ended his 2015 season in October against USC. That silver lining of that injury is that it has allowed the Irish staff to take a closer look at McGovern and Bivin, two seniors getting their first legitimate chance at playing time after three seasons as backups.
Bivin’s best home is tackle. After bouncing around the line he served as the primary backup to Ronnie Stanley last season and could be capable of moving into the starting lineup in McGlinchey’s old job. But Bars has the talent to play outside as well, though he might begin his spring at guard, where he started two games last season in place of Nelson. McGovern is another program body who has paid his dues and shown some versatility. He now has a chance to see the field, Steve Elmer’s retirement opening up a window.
It’s not just a veteran presence Kelly and Hiestand are looking for. Expect incoming freshman Tommy Kraemer to get a long look. Tristen Hoge, who impressed Kelly with a 30-inch vertical leap—the best Kelly has seen from an offensive lineman since former star Joe Staley. While Hoge doesn’t look like he’ll be the team’s center (the only natural center recruited by this staff), he’s getting plenty of reps at guard as well.
“I think you’re throwing Hoge in the mix there where he’s the new guy, but he’s not that new to the group,” Kelly said, acknowledging that this is the second spring in the rising sophomore’s career. “I feel pretty good that three out of the five guys know each other really well.”
Kelly also discussed the move of former guard John Montelus to the defensive line, talking through some of the logic behind putting the rising senior in the trenches.
“He’s one of our most powerful players, and there wasn’t really light at the end of the tunnel for him on the offensive line,” Kelly said. “We just felt like he could be a guy who at least could play a shade and give us some strong play inside, he’s a mature kid. Just more depth for us as we continue to develop the younger players. An older guy who is mature, who we can count on to do some things for us, specific things—we’re not going to ask him to do a lot—but we know the job can get done.”
Montelus’ move might be a direct response to some of the struggles Notre Dame had in the run game, specifically in short yardage and goal line situations. He could also be some nice protection to some undersized but athletic linebackers, much more capable of running down a ball carrier with a 310-pound boulder eating up blockers.
Our friends at Fighting Irish Media had cameras rolling during day one of spring practice. They put together a highlight reel from the day’s work.
Let’s over-analyze it!
* Play one features Torii Hunter Jr. connecting with Malik Zaire, a pretty throw put perfectly between the underneath coverage from Nick Coleman and a late-arriving safety (Nicco Fertitta, maybe?).
Hunter’s emergence this spring will be interesting to watch. If you’re listening, it appears that he heads into the season as a presumed starter. That makes sense when you look at the departures, but it’s also a huge show of faith in a receiver who has yet to make an impact.
Things going for Hunter: His speed, for one. I certainly didn’t think the rising senior had 4.4 jets, but maybe that’s a product of not seeing him put in a position to use them.
* That’s Chris Finke welcoming Devin Studstill to college football. Even the walk-ons can burn you, Devin!
That’s not to say that Finke hasn’t been impressive. Hailing from the same high school that produced Malik Zaire, Finke caught Brian Kelly’s eye last fall, even earning some press conference mention as a guy who was sure-handed enough to be trusted in the punt return game.
Finke blows by Studstill, who was caught flat-footed, but then does a less-than spectacular job of transitioning from catch to run, hitting the ground instead of striding into the end zone.
Pete Sampson tweeted that he thinks Finke’s days as a walk-on aren’t for long. I’m in agreement, and maybe sooner than later if there’s an open spot or two in the 85 this fall.
* Everybody’s got their eyes on Nyles Morgan this spring. The heir apparent at middle linebacker shows some versatility, breaking up a DeShone Kizer pass to tight end Durham Smythe.
* Myles Boykin runs a hitch in front of fellow sophomore Ashton White. Both guys are intriguing young players who could start seeing some time on the field this season after redshirting. White was listed as a safety on the spring roster, but is playing cornerback here. That’s likely a sign that he’s got the type of positional flexibility that’ll help him find the field if needed.
* Pretty nifty play by cornerback Nick Watkins, who breaks on the ball from Kizer to sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown. Watkins gets a hand on the pass, tips it into the air where it’s intercepted by Drue Tranquill.
Yep, that’s right. Tranquill—a rehab freak—is out there running 7-on-7 less than six months after tearing his ACL, the second time in two seasons. The addition of Tranquill and Shaun Crawford back into the secondary is huge, two difference-makers who could immediately elevate the play of the unit.
Worth noting senior linebacker James Onwualu out there with Nyles Morgan and Asmar Bilal — the closest thing to the first string as we’ll get on Day One. That’s where most people want to see Watkins, running with the starters and making plays.
It’s 7-on-7, so nobody should blow their stack just yet, but it’s a nice benefit of getting a start in the Fiesta Bowl and going into spring ball with momentum.
* Another nice breakup by Morgan. It’s as if the people cutting this video knew Irish fans were worried about Morgan’s ability to play well in coverage. (Weird!)
* We just heard about Corey Holmes‘ 4.39 forty and 41-inch vertical. Seeing him hit the ground for a 4-yard gain on a quick slant from Malik Zaire does nothing to get us excited about that breakaway speed, but it might be the first pass we’ve seen Holmes catch.
After two seasons buried on the bench, it’ll be interesting to see how much Holmes can contribute. He’s always reminded me a little bit of TJ Jones, mostly because he’s a smooth athlete with nice speed, but also because physically there’s nothing overly intimidating about him. But as the personnel on this roster (especially among the skill players) has improved, it just takes time to break through, especially if you’re lacking a dominant trait.
* So THAT’s the Torii Hunter that has the coaching staff excited. Running under a beautiful deep ball from Kizer, Hunter torches rising sophomore Nick Coleman on a go-route.
Anybody worried that the vertical passing game was going to leave the offensive arsenal with Will Fuller gone can relax. There are plenty of guys who can get behind opponents, especially with the running game the Irish will likely feature.
* The president, Corey Robinson, makes a nice catch on a dig route. Another pretty ball by Kizer and nice concentration by Robinson, making a tough grab look smooth.
* That’s White stepping in and breaking up a pass to Finke, with Zaire throwing the deep flag route into man coverage.
Notre Dame needs Max Redfield. The senior safety is one of the lone familiar faces on a defense short on experience and on a roster that only returns nine starters.
As Redfield enters his final season of eligibility, he’s still looking to play up to the lofty expectations that followed him from Southern California to South Bend. After the year’s first spring practice, head coach Brian Kelly was asked about Redfield, his development and what to expect from him come September.
“Max is an interesting young man,” Kelly said. “Anytime you come in with a lot of hype and praise and five-stars, there’s a lot of expectations. I think the game for him is one that he’s had to learn a lot about the position that he’s playing. He plays a position that requires a lot of football knowledge and he didn’t have a lot at the position and he’s gained a tremendous amount of football knowledge in a very short period of time.”
Like all learning curves, Redfield’s has always been smooth. On the field, his breakout performance against LSU in the Music City Bowl had preseason pundits like Phil Steele predicting an All-American junior campaign. But an early-season injury made 2015 a frustrating one, and a curfew violation that got Redfield sent home from the Fiesta Bowl only compounded the situation heading into the offseason.
Kelly acknowledged a hand in some of the struggles. After looking like a redshirt candidate, the Irish coaching staff blew a season of eligibility by starting Redfield in the Pinstripe Bowl against Rutgers.
“We had to play him and use up a year, which really wasn’t fair to him, in a bowl game situation, so he really should have another year with us,” Kelly conceded.
Press Notre Dame’s head coach a little bit harder and Kelly might also concede that never in a million years did they think Redfield would be the type of player to stick around for five years in South Bend. Nor did they think it’d take a full four years to develop Redfield into the cornerstone that this unit desperately needs on the back end.
While his athleticism has never been questioned, Kelly discussed some of the offseason priorities for the rising senior, namely some physical tweaks to Redfield’s game— lengthening his backpedal, smoothing out some of his movement skills. But the real work will likely come with the immediacy of the situation and an extra dose of maturity, as Redfield has only one more shot to prove his worth on the football field.
The light turned on for safeties Kyle McCarthy, Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta later in their very productive Notre Dame careers. On a day that’s built for optimism, Kelly seemed genuine in his belief that the same will happen with Redfield.
“The progress has been steady,” Kelly said. “It hasn’t been fast, but he’s at the cusp of really, I think, putting it all together for us.”
Doug Randolph‘s career at Notre Dame is over. The reserve defensive lineman will no longer compete on the field, as a spinal injury has ended his career.
Randolph wasn’t expected to battle for a starting job, though he was a contender to take snaps in the weakside defensive end rotation. Now he’ll serve as a student assistant, similar to the role Tony Springmann filled after injuries took him off the field.
With a newly released spring roster, here are few other changes that caught my eye:
Fifth-year candidates Nicky Baratti and John Turner are no longer with the program. Offensive lineman Mark Harrell is with the team. As is long-snapper Scott Daly, as always assumed. Interestingly, graduate student, and former walk-on, Josh Anderson is still on the spring roster.
Starting defensive tackle Jarron Jones is the only other fifth-year starter while Avery Sebastian stays in South Bend for a second season after arriving as a graduate transfer from Cal last summer. An early-season foot injury qualified him for a sixth year of competition.
Two big position switches are in the mix, mostly to bolster the depth chart behind some front-line options. Rising senior Jacob Matuska is moving from the defensive line to tight end. After being listed as a 295-pound defensive lineman as a junior, Matuska is down to 275 pounds on the spring roster (Kelly had him pegged at 271) and he’ll likely fill the role of Chase Hounshell as an in-line blocker.
Matuska, a very good tight end as a high school player, already impressed the staff with his athleticism during testing.
“One of the numbers that really surprised me was Matuska. We moved him over to tight end, 6’4½, 271, and he ran 4.9,” Kelly said. “So there’s a big in-line guy for us that ran a whole lot better at 4.9.”
John Montelus is working with the defensive line. After spending the last three seasons as an offensive lineman, Montelus will try and add some depth to the interior of the defensive line.
An intriguing body type and power player, watching Montelus brawl from the other side of the line will be interesting. After showing up as a 340-pounder out of high school, Montelus has reshaped his body, opening this spring at 310 pounds. Whether that helps the Massachusetts native break through remains to be seen.
Redshirt freshman Ashton White will work with the safeties this spring after being listed as a defensive back as a freshman. He’s up to 190 pounds after being listed at 182 last season.
Kelly also finalized the remainder of his football staff. While the position coaches and coordinators stay the same, Kelly detailed the comings and goings of the analyst and GA staff.
Harland Bower will be one of the team’s defensive graduate assistants. He’s replacing Mike Hiestand, who will be the defensive coordinator for NAIA program Ave Maria. Clay Bignell is the team’s other defensive GA, replacing former Irish captain Maurice Crum, who took a full-time staff job at Indiana State. Bignell was a GA last year at Northwestern (along with former Irish QB Tommy Rees) and was a standout linebacker at Montana State as a college player.
Pryce Tracy moves from special teams analyst to offensive graduate assistant. He replaces Ryan Mahaffey, who is now the offensive coordinator at Northern Iowa. Marty Biagi will be the new special teams analyst. He spent last season at South Dakota and before that coordinated special teams at Southern.
Former Wisconsin center Donovan Raiola remains at offensive GA while Matt Mitchell takes on Jeff Quinn‘s analyst role. Quinn will remain within the program, the former head coach at Buffalo and trusted Kelly confidante replacing Aaron Wellman as the assistant director of strength and conditioning. Wellman was hired by Ben McAdoo to run the New York Giants strength department. He had been with the Irish for one season after running Michigan’s strength department.